The first major misfire of the summer blockbuster season lumbers into view in the form of Warcraft, Duncan Jones’s graceless adaptation of Blizzard Entertainment’s gargantuan video-game franchise. Watching this bloated mélange of derivative fantasy tropes unfold is akin to being forced to follow the efforts of a particularly ham-fisted gamer, with the viewer being jerked back and forth across countless busy CGI landscapes by a plot that’s utterly predictable when it isn’t confusing. As various incoherently shot battles are waged, volleys of glowing energy fired, and shameless sequel-establishing shenanigans indulged, there’s at least ample time to ponder the one interesting question the film posits: Given the modesty of his previous work, what exactly might have lured Jones to this project in the first place?
The conspicuous lack of explanation in Warcraft’s opening stretch assumes fan-level knowledge of the material, which for the uninitiated means that names and concepts are bandied around and key locations visited with such speed that keeping up is impossible. Following a good half-hour of head-scratching confusion, two main plot threads finally come into focus, a process aided considerably by the ultimate superficiality of their construction. An orc army presided over by evil sorcerer Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) is making incursions into the world of humans to lay the groundwork for a future orc colonization, with a portal powered by human life force that enables passage between realms, a dangerous reliance on black magic that noble orc chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell) frowns upon. A young human mage named Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) duly gets wind of this plan and informs both knight Anduin Lother (Travis Fimmel) and King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), who exchange troubled looks before seeking out the assistance of magician Medivh (Ben Foster), a mysterious, ambivalent figure tasked with protecting the kingdom.
Attempted alliances, infighting and betrayal on both sides, and numerous listless discussions about honor and strategy pave the way to the inevitable big battle between humans and orcs, with extra frisson meant to be imparted by the nascent romance between Lothar and Garona (Paula Patton), a feisty orc-human crossbreed obviously predestined to mediate between the sides. Yet the cursory attention given to these tediously simplistic finale-delaying subplots prevents any of them from feeling consequential, a problem compounded by the fact most of them will only find payoff in the sequel anyway, should there be one. It also doesn’t help that the dialogue is laughably functional, consisting of various modern-sounding platitudes irregularly couched in ye olde worlde inflections, whereby character shading or nuance are superfluous. The actors flail at being asked to deliver such utilitarian utterances, with declamatory woodenness across a range of accents, aside from Foster’s half-hearted attempts to chew the scenery.
Given that fantasy is hardly a genre renowned for the depth of its conversation, the stilted dialogue wouldn’t be such a handicap if the world it references were portrayed in more inspired fashion. Yet Jones’s take on the Warcraft universe is little more than a bargain-basement rehash of Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth, with wall-to-wall, often cheap-looking CGI serving as an unhappy substitute for the New Zealand landscape. The result is a realm at once overstuffed with space-filling flourishes and strangely empty, a world so relentlessly synthetic it’s hard to get a grasp on and thus even harder to care about. The arbitrary way in which this world has been pieced together is only enhanced by the shoddy editing both within scenes and between them, as the rapid, random cuts during battle sequences induce nothing but a confusing lack of spatial continuity. The only governing principle for cutting between locations seems to be that a character has finished declaiming their lines.
With recent blockbuster benchmark Mad Max: Fury Road having demonstrated that keeping dialogue to a minimum, crafting a convincingly fantastical, yet still tangible world, and paying heed to basic spatial considerations can be profitable virtues, it remains to be seen whether Warcraft’s wearying commitment to inarticulate, half-baked artificiality will also prove a money-spinner; perhaps the fact that the film still often feels like its video-game antecedents is the point. Yet even if Warcraft does indeed turn a profit, it will function as a depressing cautionary tale about what Hollywood does to its newcomers regardless: the paycheck aside, is moving from modest science-fiction fare to anonymous franchise fodder really an enviable trajectory?